Can the NCAA Basketball Commission Accomplish Anything?

Experts weigh in on the best steps the panel could take versus what is achievable.

March 27, 2018
 

The National Collegiate Athletic Association's president, Mark Emmert, acknowledged that there would be a collective public eye roll at his announcement of a commission to reform big-time men’s basketball.

In a speech to thousands of delegates at the NCAA annual convention in January, he paraphrased the association’s critics: “Oh, that’s what the NCAA does -- got a big problem, form a commission.”

The NCAA does have a big problem. And the question of its impotence once again arose with the scandal that rocked the world of college basketball last year, with coaches of four top-tier teams being charged with accepting cash payments in exchange for steering recruits to certain institutions. The NCAA officials said they had no idea -- and news reports have suggested the corruption is not limited to these programs.

The commission, led by former U.S. secretary of state and Stanford University provost Condoleezza Rice, has remained quiet about its work, though it’s due to deliver recommendations to the NCAA's governing body, the Board of Directors, late next month. Rice has never publicly discussed progress among its members and her only -- bland -- statement on the NCAA website is from October.

Emmert said in a recent Associated Press interview that he expects recommendations on how to better handle NCAA enforcement, as well as the so-called one-and-done phenomenon -- in which athletes play on a college team for a single season before departing for the National Basketball Association. Paying athletes, a particularly controversial proposal, will likely be a no-go.

Inside Higher Ed asked a range of experts in college sports two questions: First, ideally, what should the commission suggest to fix men’s basketball? And second, what do you think the commission will realistically do?

The answers that follow have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Photo of Josephine R. PotutoJosephine R. Potuto, former member of the NCAA Division I infractions committee and Richard H. Larson Professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln

Any effective solution to the scandal … has to be focused on limiting, if not eliminating, the nonscholastic influence.

What the Rice commission should recommend that the NCAA do: No. 1, end summer recruiting. The summer tournaments enhance the status and power of nonscholastic influences (agents, runners, apparel companies, etc.) that, in turn, encourage high school -- and even junior high school -- prospects to compete in nonscholastic leagues.

Two, make men’s basketball a one-semester sport and change March Madness to May Madness. Men’s basketball players are at the lowest end of academic performance of all NCAA athletes. Yet we pull them out of classes in the middle of an academic semester. I know the financial concerns. But this would be the strongest message the NCAA could send that the first priority is the academic and overall well-being of student athletes.

Three, revise the approach to agents. Currently, the “agents” who engage with prospects do so illicitly. That means reputable agents stand clear. That drives the activity underground. Better to permit agents, and then police the excesses that may occur. Four, revise the enforcement arm so that it can be more adversarial and more aggressive (or outsource enforcement regarding amateurism issues).

Photo of Arne DuncanArne Duncan, former U.S. secretary of education and chairman of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics

At a minimum, the NCAA seems wildly irrelevant to what’s actually going on.

Clearly, they do a fantastic job at marketing their product and generating very significant revenue every year, with absolute consistency. The business model works well. But clearly the level of corruption, the underbelly of this, is so vast and so pervasive, and the NCAA appears to have largely been oblivious.

The fact [is] that this is all coming out around a small handful of agents -- for now. But my point is there’s hundreds of these entangled relationships. To call it the tip of the iceberg would be an understatement. I think this is one of those existential moments; whether the NCAA can become relevant again or regain trust -- that’s a very open question.

I’ll tell you what I think will likely happen -- the NBA won’t wait for the NCAA to cure itself. The NBA likely will move faster to develop feeder programs, to prepare kids at the top to pursue their profession.

What can the NCAA do? There’s a lot they can do -- the question is what they’re willing to do. Do they have the courage or the wherewithal to do it? If you look at the governing structure of the NCAA, it’s a hugely large governing body. It’s all insiders. It’s all people with different levels of vested interest in the status quo. Before we talk about any policy, I always look at governance. And when I look at the number of people and I look at their institutions that are absolutely a part of this behavior, not just complicit, but perpetuating this behavior, I’m always hopeful. I would love to be surprised. But I haven’t seen evidence they’re going to do what it takes. This is one of those moments. If big change doesn’t happen now, it never will. If this is a time of big words and little talk, that will tell you everything you need to know. But they’re sitting on something that’s pretty rotten to its core.

I can’t prove this, this is absolutely anecdotal, but informally, I’ve talked to a number of college coaches trying to get a sense of this. And they say of the top 100 players, 75 to 80 percent of them are getting paid. There aren’t many who aren’t. It’s players being paid, it’s family members being paid, it’s coaches being paid. This is super complicated -- but it’s been super interesting to me. On an anecdotal basis, coaches have said that the overwhelmingly majority of kids … are on the payroll. And I think that’s the truth.

I have a huge amount of respect for Condoleezza Rice; she’s someone I’ve learned from. But she has no authority -- she’ll make recommendations, they’ll be thoughtful clear recommendations, but we’ll see [to] what extent they’ll be implemented or just talked about.

Photo of Rich J. EnsorRich J. Ensor, commissioner of the Division I Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference

I hope that meaningful reform is an outcome of the commission’s review, while remaining skeptical of it being achieved. I think the association easily identifies external threats to the sport, like the influences of shoe companies or agents, but is challenged when it looks inward. The composition of the committee leads me to think that none of the proposed reforms one reads about -- access to agents, new recruiting limits, etc. -- will lead to meaningful reform.

I would like to see the enforcement process outsourced for other than minor infractions. Some arbitration system that was binding on all the parties and had significant financial and reputational outcomes to offending coaches and institutions.

Photo of John ThelinJohn Thelin, professor of higher education and public policy in the University of Kentucky College of Education

I doubt that blue-ribbon basketball commission will be very effective. It’s highly ritualized, with a number of high-profile appointees who really are pretty far removed from higher education, including college sports.

I think a meaningful thing the commission could do is emphasize that college and university trustees and then presidents are ultimately responsible for the appropriate conduct of college sports.

To reinforce that observation and message, have them cite the examples of presidents and chancellors at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, University of Louisville, Penn State University and Michigan State University (and perhaps elsewhere), where presidents resigned or were fired for not being appropriately informed and leading for their campuses' intercollegiate athletics programs.

I would like to have university presidents and the NCAA meet with officials of the NBA on, for example, revisiting the age restriction to play in the NBA.

Photo of Bill MaherBill Maher, athletics director at Canisius College and member of the NCAA Division I Council

In my opinion, the most meaningful reforms would focus on the following:

Working with the NBA to address their draft eligibility requirements. While this is a relatively low number of college basketball players, they are often the highest-profile ones.

Working to allow student athletes to enter the draft and, if not drafted, retain eligibility and return to school. The date of the draft makes this very difficult in the overall recruiting for college programs, as they would have to wait for that to occur to understand if they are replacing a student or not. Figuring that out is not as simple as saying they can return if not drafted, which is reasonable. Tied with this would be the permissible conversations or work with an agent to provide proper guidance.

I think all of college athletics should revisit the limitations placed on the use of a student's “name, image or likeness.” I would like us to find a way to allow a student, if the market would dictate it, to profit from their [name, image or likeness]. This would be distinctly different from that student athlete using their school in combination with their likeness, but if it was just the student, they should be afforded that if they can command it in the marketplace. This is defined as the Olympic model.

I think the commission will make suggestions on the eligibility should they return from the draft. The draft eligibility requirements are a National Basketball Players Association issue, so this commission can only recommend things along those lines.

The [name, image and likeness] is another part of a broader discussion that I do not expect to come from the commission, but if it does, it will have some more support.

Photo of Jon SolomonJon Solomon, editorial director of the Aspen Institute's Sports and Society Program

The most meaningful reform the commission could propose would be allowing college athletes to be paid, such as letting them make money off their names, images and likenesses (NILs). Doing so would acknowledge that some college basketball players (and some in other sports) possess more value than the scholarship they receive. There’s widespread belief by the public that a major part of the FBI probe into college basketball stems from the fact that NCAA rules create an underground market where athletes are paid.

This is purely a guess: I think we could see from the commission proposals related to the NBA’s one-and-done rule, loosening NCAA transfer rules, loosening restrictions on the player-agent relationship in basketball, and allowing undrafted early NBA entrants to return to school.

Assuming NCAA amateurism rules stay in place, the commission may also address how the NCAA plans to enforce its rules moving forward, or whether it needs an outside entity to handle enforcement. The lack of faith the NCAA membership and public seem to have in the NCAA’s ability to consistently enforce its rules and penalize schools remains a vital issue for the association.

Photo of Dave RidpathDave Ridpath, president of the Drake Group, an ethics watchdog group in college athletics

The cynical side [says] they will likely do nothing substantive, but I guess there is hope.

My ideas: No. 1, include other voices, such as the Drake Group, to really drill down solutions.

Two, think outside the box. See No. 1 and propose things that people always say won’t work or [will] kill college sports, such as [allowing students to sign] with an agent, NIL payments, larger stipends, salaries, ability to unionize, etc., that will aid in transparency and hopefully limit temptation and flush out the black market.

No. 3, absolutely stress that the sports of football and basketball need alternative farm systems that can take the stress off the educational system. Having the bulk of elite development grounded in education is a recipe for disaster.

Photo of Walter HarrisonWalter Harrison, president emeritus of the University of Hartford, Knight Commission member, former chairman of the NCAA Executive Committee (now the Board of Governors)

I have no particular issues with any of the prevailing NCAA regulations. The problems that have been uncovered in the FBI investigation are situations I have heard about for years, but the NCAA has not been able to uncover them because neither the NCAA nor its member institutions have subpoena power. It is unlikely the Rice commission will recommend that the NCAA get subpoena power, since that would require federal legislation that is entirely unlikely.

Another problem is the extremely high salaries paid to head basketball and football coaches at Power Five universities (and a few others). Many people have suggested the NCAA seek an antitrust exception to allow it to establish restrictions on salaries. I think going to Congress for this exemption would cause much more havoc than any good it would do, so I would not advise that course of action and doubt the commission will, either.

I would separate the enforcement division of the NCAA completely from its senior leadership. I would have the chief executive of enforcement report directly to the NCAA Board of Governors and have that group set its budget and oversee its regulation. To help with public perception, I would have one-third of its members be "public members" (i.e., people not connected with any NCAA member, either as an employee or board member) and require that the other two-thirds be made up of representatives of all three divisions. While the enforcement division now operates behind a firewall, its head is appointed by the NCAA president, and this separation would improve the perception that it operates independently.

I would require all NCAA compliance personnel at the university level to report directly to the university's general counsel instead of the athletics director. As far as I am concerned, this would bring about the same division between the athletics administration and the oversight of compliance that I'm suggesting for the NCAA. This structure would mirror the role of compliance for university research grants. The majority of compliance directors are already attorneys, so while I know all athletic directors will oppose this idea, it merits very serious consideration.

I would reinstate the requirement that all outside income of athletic personnel be reported to the NCAA. It was dropped a few years ago because members thought it was undue regulation. It turns out it was more important than members knew. In addition, I would require all universities to divulge all the details of their athletic apparel and equipment contracts, both publicly and to the NCAA. I know this will be opposed by all private universities, but they must come to understand that not doing this has severely damaged their reputations and in the most severe cases (e.g., Louisville) their integrity.

Photo of Marc EdelmanMarc Edelman, professor of law at Baruch College and sports law specialist

There is a lot the commission could do to fix college basketball if they wanted to make changes in earnest. One simple and logical solution would be to immediately deregulate third-party payments to college athletes.

The current prohibitions on athlete endorsement deals are archaic, self-interested, at least a little bit racist and -- quite frankly -- a glaring antitrust violation.

At the same time, the commission should take steps to voluntarily recognize a union or quasi-union entity to represent the interests of elite college basketball players, and to recognize college athletes' rights to enter into contractual relationships with lawyers, agents and other outside business advisers.

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